Hebrews (Part 10) – Faith
Chapter 11 is the most well known portion of the book of Hebrews. Some have referred to it as the Faith Hall of Fame. Some people also have viewed the first verse as a definition of faith. Advancing either of those two ideas, however, does not appear to be the author’s intent.
The first verse does look like a definition. It starts out “Faith is….” But let’s remember the audience and the author’s argument so far. The author is writing to Jews—Jews who, we learned at the end of chapter 5, were mere babes in Christ with regard to understanding. These Jews still clung to aspects of their old covenant heritage. In that religion they had tangible elements that they could see and touch and point to. The sacrifices, priesthood, and tabernacle/temple seemed to define their religion. Christianity did away with these objects, holding instead to things spiritual.
The author has just finished explaining why Christ and the New Covenant are superior to all those former, more ostensible things of the old covenant. And this New Covenant is entered by faith. Thus, verse 1 is a summary statement, arguing that they should not seek tangible elements as the basis or substance of their relationship with God. Instead, faith is the basis or substance. It is not the material that is the evidence of their relationship with God. Faith is that evidence.
I’ve used the words substance and faith from the King James because I think they hit closer to the intended meaning than the words assurance and conviction from the ESV and NASB. The Greek word here translated as substance or assurance is hypostasis. It is used a couple of times in 2 Corinthians, translated as confidence and confident. Its only other NT occurrences are in Hebrews. Chapter 1 verse 3 says that Christ is the exact imprint of God’s nature (hypostasis). The word seems to be highlighting the basis for confidence and assurance rather than merely confidence and assurance themselves. Thus, substance in Hebrews 11:1 maintains that idea that faith is the substance or basis upon which our confidence rests.
The second word of interest, translated as evidence in the KJV and conviction in the ESV, is elegchos. This word is used only one other time in the NT. Second Timothy 3:16 tells us that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof (elegchos),….” In this context we find that Scripture is the proof by which to correct wrong thinking. Thus, the tie with evidence seems to me to be stronger than with conviction. So then, it is not the material that defines our relationship with God. Faith is the substance of our hope; it is the evidence of our spiritual relationship.
But still, the Jewish letter readers may have wondered, “Didn’t all those people involved with the old covenant find favor with God based on the material—on that which they did?” In verse 2, the author of Hebrews fires back a No! It was just the opposite. It was by faith that “the people of old received their commendation.”
As we approach the bulk of the chapter, then, we realize that the author’s intent is not to create a Faith Hall of Fame. It is not to extol the OT actors because of the great faith that they had. Rather, it is merely to provide evidence to back up verse 2. The author argues that these OT characters did find favor with God, but they found it based not on their activity but rather based on the underlying faith that sponsored the works. So, Abel, in verse 4, is not commended for bringing a sacrifice to God (after all, Cain brought one too). Abel is commended because his sacrifice was one of faith. We need to examine that sacrifice a bit more to understand the author’s use in this context.
Some people have concluded that God must have told the first family to offer lamb sacrifices to him. Thus, Abel’s offering—a lamb—was pleasing to God while Cain’s disobedient offering of the fruit of the ground was not accepted. While there is an element of faith in simple obedience, I think the point about Abel is something more. We have no record of God requiring a sacrificial system prior to Moses and the Law. Yes, sacrifices were made, but not on the basis of God’s command (except maybe Abraham’s sacrifice on Mt. Moriah). I believe Abel understood what the sacrifice represented. Unlike his parents, Adam and Eve, who withdrew their faith in God and placed it in themselves, Abel’s faith looks to God with a desire to give his whole life to him. That faithful desire motivated the animal sacrifice as a picture of a life given to God while understanding the necessity for death as payment for sin. That is what made Abel’s sacrifice acceptable to God. Cain’s sacrifice had none of those faithful elements. He merely was giving a present to God.
Now we can see why Abel’s example is captured in Hebrews 11. It was not the mere sacrifice that commended Abel to God. It was Abel’s faith in understanding the picture representation of the sacrifice that pleased God. Abel was the first person ever to die. I imagine as Abel walked with Cain out into that field, Abel was explaining the basis of his offering. Cain’s anger probably jumped on Abel’s statement that the gift represented his desire to give his life for God. Cain perhaps lashed out with his knife, saying that Abel may as well give his life in actuality.
The author of Hebrews next chooses Enoch. Little is known of Enoch. We know basically two things: Enoch walked with God and Enoch was translated to heaven without seeing death. That walking with God, we learn in Hebrews, meant that Enoch was trusting or placing his faith in God. Again, this was an example of God being pleased by faith and not works.
The example of Noah is next. It was not the act of building the ark, but rather the faith in God and his word that the Hebrews’ author points out as commending Noah to God.
Now let’s review this first grouping of Abel, Enoch, and Noah. They all have a distinction that associates them with one element of relationship with God. Remember our discussion of the four elements of relationship with God? They were Life, Rest, Righteousness, and Rank (Hierarchy). Abel was the first person to die, but only after showing with his sacrifice his desire to give his life for God. Enoch never saw death, but was translated to heaven because of his faith. Noah was the one kept alive, because of his faith, while all the rest of the world was destroyed. He was also the representative involved with God’s Covenant of Life, sealed by the sign of the rainbow. So, each of these characters primarily displays that element or distinction of Life in relationship with God.
From verse 8 to verse 22 the next relationship distinctive is highlighted—that of Rest (security, peace, land). Abraham leaves his homeland, and notice in verse 10 that his eye of faith was not trained on simply another location (although God was to promise him the land of Canaan). Verse 10 tells us that Abraham was “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” Sarah also has faith in God’s word of promised descendants.
The concept delivered in verse 13 is interesting. The author tells us that all of these (Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants) died without receiving the things promised. Did not Abraham live in Canaan—and Isaac and Jacob too? Did not Solomon expand the borders to encompass all that God had promised? Surely they received the things promised, right? The author of Hebrews says no. The point is that the importance of the promise was in its spiritual application—the rest of God discussed back in Hebrews 3 and 4. That promised rest was not realized by Abraham and his descendants because Christ had not yet come.
In verse 23 the author moves to the third element or distinctive of relationship with God—Righteousness. Through faith, Moses’s parents saw him as beautiful (probably meaning as a valued life—image of God—that should not be destroyed). Therefore, righteousness reigned as they followed God rather than the edict of Pharoah. Likewise, Moses chose association with the people of God rather than the pleasures of sin. He chose the reproach of Christ rather than treasures of Egypt. He followed God in leaving Egypt, enduring the wrath of the king. And Moses was the representative involved in God’s Covenant of Law. The Children of Israel and Rahab are also mentioned. All of these primarily represent the distinctive of Righteousness in relationship with God.
Finally, the author of Hebrews speaks of those whose primary distinctive in relationship with God is Rank. The ones mentioned here are all leaders of Israel—judges, generals, and kings. The faith of these people in submitting to God although being leaders over others commends them.
Still, while these all demonstrated faith, showing right relationship with God, highlighting the elements of life, rest, righteousness and rank, they all died (verse 39) without receiving the promise. Understand that all the promises given in all covenants with God throughout the Bible funnel through those four distinctives to provide relationship with him. That’s the spiritual truth and reality. The promise of God is right relationship with him. Those of the old covenant did not receive that promise apart from us—those of the New Covenant. We all receive the promise through Christ—through his perfect life satisfying the obligations of the old covenant, sacrificing himself as payment for our sin, overcoming sin and death by his holiness, and then, through faith, providing restored relationship with God.
In chapter 12 the author seeks to encourage. Those listed in chapter 11 are witnesses, not of us, as if we have these witnesses watching our movements, but rather this cloud of witnesses has shown us, demonstrated to us, witnessed to us of their faith. We then should also look to Jesus in faith.
He chastises us, and he disciplines us. The heavy use of the word discipline through the next several verses is not to be confused as a heavy emphasis on chastisement. The Greek word here is paideia, which is used only two other times outside Hebrews. We are to bring up our children in the nurture or training (paideia) of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). All Scripture is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for instruction or training (paideia) in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). While the Lord does chasten, the point of the passage is that all the hardships and problems we endure through this life are intended for our maturity in sanctification. Therefore, we must keep eyes of faith focused on Christ and not on the problems. In that way, our lives will be characterized by encouragement, peace, and holiness. We will obtain grace, be free from bitterness and anger, live in purity—in all, live not with a focus on ourselves, but on Christ. How different from the messages we receive from the world around us now! Our culture screams at us to love self, live for self, and concentrate on self-image. The only result from that is bitterness, anger, frustration, and impurity. Live for God.
Thousands of years ago, the blood of Abel cried out to God from the ground. It called out for justice. But now, Christ’s sprinkled blood “speaks a better word” (12:24) than Abel’s. His blood speaks of justice, forgiveness, and peace with God.